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Why are good pickups better than bad pickups?

NoahL

Member
Messages
1,423
I realized that I don't know why a Fralin (e.g) PAF sounds better than a cheapie. And one thing pickup makers almost never do is tell you what they've done (or used) to make a pickup sound "better." If a standard HB is a baseplate, bobbins, magnets, screws and wire, are there more "toneful" versions of each of these? Is there better "quality" AlNiCo and copper? Or do the boutique guys have clever ways of magnetizing the bars? Or is it all in the winding patterns? (Cuz not everyone "scatter winds" by hand.) I know this sounds like a dumb question, but what prevents an Epiphone 57CH(G) from sounding like a Duncan 59 or makes a Fralin Pure PAF sound potentially better than both? Or at least cost more?
 

bgmacaw

Member
Messages
8,083
Mojo...

But seriously, when you're looking at US made production line pickups vs China, most of it is going to be in the parts quality. While a buyer can spec high quality parts be used in a manufacturing run in China, most will opt for the lower cost components. If the bill of materials are apples to apples, you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The other, smaller, part is consistency but I see this as less of a factor today than it was 10 years ago.

The difference between the boutique and production line pickups is the attention to detail. The expectation, which isn't always met, is that a small boutique builder will insure that their pickups are well done before they ship to customers. Some may use premium components but the effect of this is limited without the skill to apply it.
 

rwijaya

Member
Messages
2,787
better is really subjective though. what someone else perceived better doesn't always mean the same way to other people. We are pretty fortunate that we lives in a world where there is tons of musical/gear option to try on.

i know some players that would prefer to have a chinese/asian pickup, because to him its serve the sounds that he likes in his head better than fralin etc.
 

NoahL

Member
Messages
1,423
Mojo...

But seriously, when you're looking at US made production line pickups vs China, most of it is going to be in the parts quality. While a buyer can spec high quality parts be used in a manufacturing run in China, most will opt for the lower cost components. If the bill of materials are apples to apples, you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The other, smaller, part is consistency but I see this as less of a factor today than it was 10 years ago.

The difference between the boutique and production line pickups is the attention to detail. The expectation, which isn't always met, is that a small boutique builder will insure that their pickups are well done before they ship to customers. Some may use premium components but the effect of this is limited without the skill to apply it.
But the questions remain: what are "better quality parts" and what are the "details" better makers attend to?
 

NoahL

Member
Messages
1,423
So a Fralin is better than a cheap Chinese pickup only because of a quirk of my hearing?
 

bluesjunior

Member
Messages
5,925
Pickup makers in the 50's were using the materials available to them at the time. They were mass produced on an assembly line and "hand wound", rather than being some value added option just meant that at the time it was cheaper to employ people to guide the wire onto the spools by hand rather than invent a machine to do it for them. This fact has probably more to do with some pickups having a distinct attractive tone and was purely accidental. Something else that I have pondered is why the wide price difference between "authentic sounding" vintage copies. I mean in my opinion if you are after the sound of a '59 vintage PAF then all of the custom makers offerings should sound the same, no?.
 

rwijaya

Member
Messages
2,787
So a Fralin is better than a cheap Chinese pickup only because of a quirk of my hearing?
yes and no. Not better, just different.

Each boutique winder typically has characteristic of tone personality in their pickup designs.

one good example are lollar pickups. Great sounding pickup, very knowledgeable winder. lots of people loves the tone. lots of people also disliking it, some says its too polite. I'm personally find lollar pickup to be sweet sounding with a very Round/smooth characteristic and just so happen that round/smooth characteristic is not something i looks for in the tone of a pickup.

but does this mean lollar pickup is bad sounding? no, they are just different.
 

bgmacaw

Member
Messages
8,083
But the questions remain: what are "better quality parts" and what are the "details" better makers attend to?
The consistency and quality of the source bulk materials is a quality factor. A cheap maker is going to seek out the cheapest components to do their build in order to cut the price per unit unless the buyer's spec calls for a specific source. They may use different materials from run to run because that's what they have on hand.

Another factor is the ability of the manufacturing line workers and the quality of their equipment. Bad or outdated equipment means a lower quality result even if the materials are the same. Same is if the workers do a bad job. Lastly, if the quality control is poor, you get an inconsistent product.

Attention to detail should mean that the people doing the build have the skill and experience to do the build right and are afforded the time to apply this to a build. They can anticipate potential problems early on and correct for them. They're very familiar with the assembly process and are committed to maintaining quality.

These are just some pretty basic manufacturing process things that apply to a wide range of products.


So a Fralin is better than a cheap Chinese pickup only because of a quirk of my hearing?
It's a matter of mojo vs. feng shui.

But, if the "cheap Chinese pickup" is made to the same spec as the Fralin and made on the best line with the best workers, you probably won't be able to hear the difference. However, few buyers are going to pay a Chinese factory to build this pickup to those specs or wait for it to be delivered. Instead, they'll say, "make it as cheap and fast as possible".
 

B. Howard

Gold Supporting Member
Messages
1,211
Small things can make big differences. Materials make a difference, just the wire for instance. Purity of the copper wire, what the wire is coated with, gauge of the wire all make a difference. Then there are the qualities imparted by manufacturing like constant tension of the wire while winding, winding pattern......I have pulled enough Duncan Designed pickups and replaced them with actual USA Seymour Duncans to know that these small differences add up.
 

Tommy Biggs

Gold Supporting Member
Messages
6,442
Consistency isn't generally cheap, wire quality, magnet quality, and QC on the number of wraps will cost you.

I would also suggest that it's not the quirk of your hearing, but rather that you are paying for a person with good hearing, who knows how to build pickups experimenting with the mix of a number of factors to create a result that is pleasing in some specific way.

Hotter without being harsh, bright without ice pick, beefy with a sparkly top end... You get the idea.
 

John Coloccia

Cold Supporting Member
Messages
9,578
Honestly, it is a little baffling because making pickups is really not particularly difficult. Making a lot of things is really not particularly difficult, but there's always differences in quality to choose from. I think a lot of it just comes down to actually giving a crap and caring enough to do a good job.

I can't remember who told me this story, but someone said that a colleague had visited some factory in China that was making drill bits for sets. I forget which step...possibly a hardening step...that was skipped, but there was a step skipped on all but the most popular size bits. The rest were garbage. "Americans only use these sizes anyway". I once bought a set of brad points from Woodcraft that were so bad that I ended up just tossing the entire set (odd because a lot of their drills are actually pretty good, but this set was useless). These aren't difficult things to make. It's just lack of giving a crap a not bothering to take a few seconds to dial in your setups.

I just tried some import knobs and compared them to genuine Davies knobs. In reasonable quantities, the Davies knobs are actually cheaper direct from the factory than I can get the knockoffs for. Out of the 5 knockoffs I tried, 3 of them don't actually fit on the pot shaft. The bushing is sized too small. More not giving a crap....probably just worn tools letting the hole close up. There was never any doubt of using the Davies knob, but I just had to see for myself the difference.

I can go on and on and on. Same material, same design, same tools, but the product produced by people that give a crap are always vastly superior to the ones that don't. As Brian says, it comes down to attention to detail. When you pay a few bucks extra for something, what you're paying for a lot of times is for someone who actually cares about doing a good job and making sure you get what you paid for.
 
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Laurent Brondel

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
2,975
Quality of materials, level of craftsmanship, great attention to detail and a good amount of knowledge and R&D.
For the guys designing "new" pickups it's a free horizon…
… but for the guys replicating vintage designs with any kind of care and honesty, it's all about finding and/or commissioning the right materials, with the right components, alloys and dimensions, and finding a method that yields the desired results, consistently.
Anybody can wind pickups, build an amp or even make a guitar, but the devil is in the details, as with any other high level artisanship.
 

EADGBE

Senior Member
Messages
12,339
Just a guess. Maybe the cheap ones don't have enough turns on the bobbins. Or maybe the two coils aren't matched close enough. Or maybe the magnet(s) aren't strong enough.
 

Flyin' Brian

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
30,178
So a Fralin is better than a cheap Chinese pickup only because of a quirk of my hearing?
Not a quirk. Just a difference. The subject of tone is absolutely subjective. We each individually like and dislike what we hear. That can't change. That's why the term "best" or even "better" is useless.
 

swiveltung

Senior Member
Messages
14,486
Of course there are really cheap pickups that hum, have inferior tolerances etc. But I doubt the parts in a comparable pickup make a hill of beans to selling price when you compare a $30 Fender alnico strat pickup to a boutique one. You pay for hype.
Remember, P90 types are ceramic pickups. That's cheap. If a boutique maker put alnico magnets in would that be better? I doubt it would sound like a P90.
it's a collection of the appropriate parts configurations that makes a good pickup. Not who made it.
Is your Motorola US made cell phone better than your Chinese I phone?
 

Tone_Terrific

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
33,431
Very few people seem to know how pickups work and can actually modify the design to change the important parameters.
The only winder around here that is forthcoming with any info is the Zexcoil dude.

To hear a difference in pups try one of the EMG Select (i.e. their offshore generic passive pup) or some of the early Duncan Designed pups vs the mainline pup. Something is going on. Don't expect an answer.
 

swiveltung

Senior Member
Messages
14,486
Consistency isn't generally cheap, wire quality, magnet quality, and QC on the number of wraps will cost you.

I would also suggest that it's not the quirk of your hearing, but rather that you are paying for a person with good hearing, who knows how to build pickups experimenting with the mix of a number of factors to create a result that is pleasing in some specific way.

Hotter without being harsh, bright without ice pick, beefy with a sparkly top end... You get the idea.
Actually according to modern Quality Assurance thinking, quality is free and even cheaper.
 




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